I always learned that Jews give 10 percent of their income to charity. That’s too much for me right now; are other, smaller percentages OK too?
I’m glad you asked, because the short answer is “yes.” Of course, there is a longer answer, and here it is:
The Torah does indeed require that farmers give 10 percent of at least some of the crops they raise. This requirement is called a ma’aser (tenth), which is typically rendered in English as a “tithe.” These crops, or the money they could be sold for, were used to support the operations of the Temple in Jerusalem and also to assist those who were in need, including widows and orphans. The rules of tithing are complicated, but the most important thing to understand is that the rabbis declared that the obligation to give 10 percent of one’s crops applied only in the Land of Israel. It does not apply outside of Israel, and therefore it does not apply to us.
That does not mean that there is no obligation to give to charity; there is indeed such an obligation. The Hebrew word that is usually translated as “charity” is tzedakah, and at its root it means “righteousness” or “justice.” Whatever we have ultimately comes from God, and Jewish law is clear that God wants us to share it with those who are in need. Even a poor person is obligated to give tzedakah.
This brings us to the question of how much we are obligated to give. Some rabbis claimed that donating 10 percent of one’s wealth was a “middling” sort of gift. Others said that 20 percent should be an outer limit, lest you give so much away that you yourself become poor. But these are just recommendations. You are the best judge of your own circumstances. Each person should give as much as he or she can afford and should do so cheerfully. If you do that, then you will indeed have acted righteously.
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